The world is an amazing place filled with a tremendous variety of animals, plants and environments. These elements are separated into large ecological areas where animals and plants have adapted to different environments. The environmental separations are called biomes. There are many types of biomes. Typically, biomes are identified by physical factors such as soil type, climate, geology and vegetation. There are both aquatic biomes (marine, freshwater, corals, wetlands) and terrestrial biomes (savanna, coniferous, desert, rainforest, tundra). The largest of the terrestrial biomes is the coniferous forest biome.
Coniferous forests are primarily a collection of coniferous or cone-bearing trees found in temperate areas that have plenty of rainfall. Some of the trees found in this biome are hemlocks, pines, cedars, redwoods, fir, spruces and cypresses. Most of these trees stay green the entire year, hence the name “evergreen”, and have either scale-like or needle-like leaves. Coniferous trees tend to live long. In fact, one Great Basin bristlecone is thought to be about 5,000 years old.
Rain and Snow
Coniferous forest biomes tend to have high amounts of precipitation, ranging from 12 to 35 inches per year (Source: Conserve Energy Future). Some coniferous forests in more temperate areas may see more than 70 inches pf precipitation annually. Precipitation typically falls as rain in the summer and snow in the winter. The length of each season and its corresponding precipitation is based on the geographical location of the biome. Forests located in the north experience more snow, whereas southern forests have more rain.
Climate and Location
Both subtropical and tropical climates make perfect homes for coniferous forests. The forests thrive in humid areas with plenty of precipitation. Coniferous biomes can be found in the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia, and thrive in areas with humid, warm summers and cold winters. One type of coniferous forest is known as the temperate coniferous forest and is found in the lower altitudes of Europe, Asia and North America. The northern coniferous forests are found north of 60°N latitude. The subalpine and montane forests are found in eastern Asia and Central America. The soil in these forests tends to be drier and sandier with less nutrients than the soil found in other forest biomes.
Temperatures in coniferous forests tend to stay on the cooler side, seeing as the average temperature in this biome is 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Winter temperatures may plummet far below zero. Summers can be very warm and humid.
Many animals find their home in the coniferous forest. Predators like grizzly bears, wolves and lynxes have thick fur to keep themselves insulated from the cold winters. Some of these animals hibernate to endure the cold winter while other migrate to warmer climates.
During the warmer months, when the forest has an abundance of insects, migratory birds arrive to feast and mate. The coniferous trees provide shelter for many animals including squirrels, moose, elk, porcupines, and deer. Some of these animals travel outside the biome for their preferred food source but may return to the forest to make their home. Crossbills, spotted owls, Kirtland warblers and pine martens are a few of the birds that make their home in this forest type.
Flora and Fauna
The conifer, or cone-bearing, tree takes dominance in the coniferous forest. Coniferous trees thrive in poor nutrient and acidic soil that is inhospitable to many deciduous trees. Rocks make up much of this biome, further limiting growing conditions for many plants.
Most coniferous trees are evergreen and don’t shed their leaves or needles in the fall and winter. By keeping these leaves, little energy or nutrients are needed in the spring and summer to produce new leaves. The needles of some coniferous trees are wax-coated, which greatly decreases water loss through transpiration. Needles tend to be dark in color making them capable of absorbing more of the sun’s heat and energy needed for photosynthesis. During the winter, the needles enter a sort of hibernation, requiring almost no energy or nutrients from the tree. In the spring, these needles become reanimated and start producing again. Needles contain a combination of terpenes and tannins that produces an unpleasant taste and keeps many herbivores from eating them.
Falling needles decompose very slowly and release chemicals and waxes as part of the decomposing process. This chemical release makes the soil more acidic with less nutrients for other plants. Few other plants or trees tend to survive in these biomes, but some grasses, mosses and fungi have developed a symbiotic relationship with the forest.
While it can be terrifying and devastating to be near a forest fire, coniferous forests need some exposure to fire to truly prosper. Jack pine forests found in Canada and the upper Midwest in the United States cannot reproduce without fire. These pines produce cones that are glued closed with waxes and resins known as serotinous cones. Fire is needed to melt the resin and release the seed from these cones.
The best and most beneficial forest fires for a coniferous forest are not the raging fires that make news headlines. A healthy burn stays low to the ground and never reaches the tree canopy. These fires burn with smaller flames that creep across the forest floor removing understory and releasing seeds as they burn. Once the fire burns out, nutrients from the burned plants and ground debris seep into the soil making it more rich and nutritious to the remaining trees.
Coniferous forests are unfortunately on the decline due to overlogging and poor conservation. The lumber from these forests is highly valuable and provides most of the lumber used in building structures. Coniferous trees are the primary source for products like pencils, paper, turpentine and even some medications.
The coniferous forest biome is one of the most important biomes on the earth. From providing homes to animals to supplying necessary materials for building and producing products, the value of these forests is beyond measure. With proper conservation and efforts to replant some forests, this valuable asset will continue to be beneficial for centuries to come.